In December 2015, I started a new job. Essentially, I work at a glorified call centre, except it deserves the glorification because it's probably the best call centre type of job that exists in the world. I know this because I am probably the least-likely-to get a job in a role that requires speaking and relating to people as a main job requirement. I'm not even being humble when I say this: I'm an ideas person and a products person, but I am squarely not a people-person. Though the study of psychology fascinates me, I am who the book Quiet was written for and about: an introvert who prefers solitary deep thinking to, well, talking to people all day. Alas, there aren't many jobs made for thinkers, so here I am, in an industry with notoriously high churn rates, and I've been handling it just fine. I bring this up not really to inform you of my personality, but to illustrate the value in getting out there, and allowing other ideas to bleed into your own, even if the way these ideas are received comes contrary to a preferred way of being. In fact, this contrarian method of being, while tiresome, disenchanting and challenging at times, is the key to better work.
A lot of people were surprised by this move, though they shouldn't have been. They thought it didn't quite make a lot of sense (because wasn't I the one who had always harked the virtues of entrepreneurship, quitting a job at 22 and vowing that I was never going back?), but I knew that I needed to make a lateral move because I couldn't see a way up from where I was. I mean, careers are now jungle gyms, right?
I was not in the least bit directionless or new to my industry like some (though not all) of my coworkers are. Some come in with their here-to-help guns blazing, determined to rise fast. But I was at a point in my life where I felt I had reached a limit. Not the limit, just a limit. And a high-growth tech company was the perfect place for me to go to grow, in a different way. I mean, ironically, as a kid, having no exposure to the world of startups, fashion was my way in to a world of change.
I remember my interview: I was asked "Who are you?" Caught off guard, I answered vaguely: "I'm someone who's changing" because on the one hand I feared that my singularly focused career up to that point would somehow un-qualify me, but also because it was the only true thing that I knew.
I needed a different perspective on life, the world, fashion, myself.
So for months, I set aside what I knew, what I was (getting) good at, cast away like a past life I was trying to run away from - and settled in. I learned a few things: turns out, my strengths became a part of my role, anyway. And more important than that, I couldn't run away anyway. In fact, the irony is that I've come back.
I got through the early days of being completely out of my natural environment by imagining myself as New York Times Bestselling Author Dan Lyons who wrote the book Disrupted to expose the inner workings of a tech company in Silicon Valley. After reading the book and watching the HBO tv show Silicon Valley, I became fascinated with this new world of fast-growth tech companies, dropping Vogue, BoF and my fashion blog for Product Hunt, Reddit, and code school.
Except, instead of an expose (the way a cynic who paid little heed to an NDA may approach things), I aimed to just learn (the way I, an optimist who has never had a problem with authority, would approach it). Surely this being Canada and not the real Silicon Valley makes a world of a difference: I found nothing negative to expose, it was all Canadian sunshine and unicorns. So about the company: all I have to say about it is that it is full of amazing people, ideas, and culture. You don't have to drink the koolaid; I was already drunk on it.
But I did learn a few things.
The first thing I learned: it doesn't matter what you've done, it matters what you're doing. Things are meant to be meritocracies at tech companies, and as I became ingrained in the culture, I noticed myself over time starting to apply this lens towards fashion, because fashion is an industry often caught up in money, status, politics, connections, taste, personality - and today, number of followers. I kept thinking about how quickly things move at tech companies, how within a year, I went from being the new girl to the veteran. How things ship fast, break fast, grow fast. And how things in fashion companies seem to move at a snail's pace - I mean, how many years did it take us (and is still taking us) to admit that fashion week is dead (and if they're not, as others claim, something needs to happen because that sort of declaration didn't just come out of nowhere). In that time span, singular tech companies have actually literally changed the world.
Learning this way didn't come without its costs. I lost many parts of myself over the year: I didn't write, I no longer had the privilege to work on deep work. My energy was spent every day on something that didn't come naturally to me. As a creative, it was hard to have each day pass by with so much coming in to my mind, so little coming out in the form of tangible, realized work. (Though I did manage to launch a company this summer.)
But what I gained, am gaining, has not only been important, but essential to my work, life, self.
After almost a year, I can see something happening. My ideas, the things that were frustrating me simultaneously about fashion the industry and fashion my career, were starting to bleed into this new life, job and culture I had become a part of until I realized one day that I was longer seeing things from the the point of view of a fashion student as I had been for years, a fashion watcher, a fashion theorist or even a fashion entrepreneur, but how that had slowly shifted into the point of view of a human being who has been all those things, and more, now that I have stepped outside of my own thoughts.
Today, I feel myself capable of pushing further.
I'm not surprised; things get better once they've reached their limit by cross-pollenating with other things. Though I am surprised it's taken me this long - to be fair, I've looked at these things from other angles, I've just never lived in, been entrenched so deeply in the actual culture to learn anything definitive, to let it become a part of me, to touch me that deeply. I've had two other actual jobs in my life - in both these roles, I was hidden in a small back office, working alone, reporting only to my bosses, always a duo, always the owners. I hardly spoke to anyone else, I just sat down, came in, and did my work. I can see now how that setup, while comfortable, was limiting my growth.
I've recently been reading through some of my past pieces, and I can see a staleness to them, a repetitiveness, a comfort with massaging thoughts I already had, rather than using writing as a way to venture beyond. My ideas weren't moving fast enough. That wasn't wrong, at the time. I needed to write to figure out what moved me then.
But now, I've talked to thousands of entrepreneurs and have essentially given myself an on-the-ground education on who is making retail happen today, what they're doing, and what they want. I didn't really know this what was going to happen at the time, and as it was happening, I was often too exhausted to realize it. But after stepping away from the rest of it for so long, I've come out a shiny new person with a clarity and focus I haven't felt for a long time, with new ideas I'm excited to share.
I've cultivated taste by looking at a lot of clothes over the years, but working at a tech company with coworkers who come from all walks of life and talking to entrepreneurs who also come from all walks of life has tempered that taste with a kind of authenticity and relatability that I never would've found, as an introvert, perhaps even if I had tried my entire life to do so, no matter how quickly I could write, how much better and faster I was at finding things than other people were. My ideas on fashion and retail have evolved, focused, broadened and devolved all at the same time - they are grounded in what is real, attainable and yet also aspirational. One thing we learn at tech companies is that it is always best to aim high, to dream big, and then to use the tools at our disposal to analyze, grow and pivot if need be.
It wasn't easy but I needed to do it to see the other side of fashion: fashion not as an art, or cultural/societal statement, not as design, or even a way to change the world as I explored when I immersed myself in the study of sustainability, but as an afterthought to the bigger ever-changing world of retail.
No wonder I had kept starting and stopping, feeling stuck all these years - I was trying to grow, but I had been limiting myself.
Synthesis is the combination of ideas.
Synthesis surprises, delights, it's unexpected, relevant. It's not just a way to create; it's the only way we create, when the edges of what we're trying to push bleed into the edges of something we know, until they are singular.
James Altucher calls it idea sex.
Diana Vreeland masterfully brought the same idea to the formerly one-dimensional "taste bible" of fashion when she decided that fashion was less about clothes and more about fantasy, imagination, travel, life - becoming the first true iteration of a fashion editor as they are known today. She dared to dream bigger than "fashion" as it was known then, and built what fashion then became.
I was watching a B-horror movie on Netflix the other day, As Above So Below, as I do when I need to chill after a day on the job. It's about the Paris catacombs and the gates to hell. So, okay, not the most relevant reference here. But if a B-horror movie can teach me bits of philosophy, then fine, I'll take it. "As above so below" for which the movie is named after is a concept that believes that what is outside of us is within us, what is within us is in our cells and what is in our cells is God, etc. And I think that's really relevant when we're talking about creativity, the act of creation, creative evolution. Because whether it's fashion, art, music, culture, or biology, synthesis is what makes magic.
And when we bring it back to discovering what the next big thing in fashion is, creating what that is, it's not about turning a blind eye to everything else but about adding fashion to the conversation that already exists somewhere out there in the world today. Because fashion is about the world. And far too often since it became about speed have we forgotten that there are better ways to make things better than to make them faster.
We can make them harder, stronger, better. Ourselves, too.
Photo Credit: Soo Joo by Kevin Macintosh, Vogue Italia October 2012